Harvest Time: Community-Based Social Marketing and ”High-Hanging Fruit” in Home Energy Retrofits

Blog | October 04, 2012 - 9:31 am
By Susan Mazur-Stommen , Behavior program director

On October 10, ACEEE’s Behavior and Human Dimensions of Energy Use Program will be releasing the first in a series of white papers on popular approaches for driving energy efficiency using social science methods and insights. This paper, Reaching the “High-Hanging Fruit“ through Behavior Change, shows how Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM) puts energy savings within reach across different types of programs, especially when it comes to the savings achieved through a ”home energy retrofit” program. The paper is also the basis for a webinar ACEEE will be hosting on Thursday, October 11, at 4:00 pm (Eastern) in conjunction with One Change Foundation, who will be on hand to share details on their “High Five” home energy retrofit program model, as outlined in the paper. Information about how to register for this webinar can be found at the bottom of this post!

CBSM is, in particular, an alternative to two pervasive models about behavior change: the attitude-behavior and economic self-interest models. The attitude-behavior model suggests that informing individuals and convincing them to adopt a positive attitude towards a particular action will suffice for them to change a behavior. The economic self-interest model assumes that individuals will always change their behavior to maximize financial benefit. Neither of these older models has sufficed to close the gap between the energy savings we know are out there and the participation levels necessary to address them. CBSM, in contrast, targets a community (the social context) as opposed to the individual. It recognizes that behavior is never isolated, but occurs under specific, local circumstances, with both historically and culturally determined parameters.

Working at the community level, practitioners of CBSM use locally based research to identify (potentially unique) barriers to the implementation of a program. A prime example of this phenomenon (and one we explore in the paper) is that of “a pilot program in New York [where] research uncovered that a major barrier to getting tenants to turn off their air-conditioning wall units…was that many of the modules lacked knobs”!  Without this knowledge, a well-crafted program of incentives, prompts, and social norming would have still failed spectacularly because of not taking into account a simple, physical, obstacle.

In addition to identifying barriers “on the ground,”  appropriately deployed CBSM programs use human sociability to reinforce positive behavior change. As is well known, the adoption of new behaviors and technologies typically follows an ”S” curve, whereby sets of individuals influence one another in a sequence: first the “innovators,” who are followed rapidly by the “early adopters,”  who are more slowly copied by the “early majority,” and then by the “majority“ (no change ever has 100% acceptance, so there will always be “non-adopters“). CBSM co-opts this process by formally engaging innovators and early adopters, using social diffusion as a pillar of the program. For example, as cited in the upcoming white paper:

Xcel Energy piloted a house party model called Halloween Gone Green, offering Colorado customers a kit to host a house party. The kit included games that informed about energy-saving opportunities in the home. The parties were a form of social diffusion in that hosts tended to be energy efficiency leaders and the parties allowed them to talk about energy efficiency and show guests what they had done in their homes already. According to Chris Dierker ... Market Communications Manager for Excel Energy, preliminary survey data (presented at ACEEE’s Energy Efficiency as a Resource Conference in 2011) showed that the parties effectively demonstrated how trusted peers were taking actions to save energy.

By communicating through trusted social networks and making community-wide action visible, programs also activate the process known as “social norming”—when we see the behavior of other actors and are prompted to see it as widely accepted and socially supported. Therefore, new activities are most swiftly adopted when presented via actors with a high (local) status and in a context that is “normative.”  The initial outlay in time and labor needed to identify barriers and design programs with the support of key innovators should be ultimately offset through the reduction in financial incentives, the higher savings achieved, and the spread and persistence of energy savings resulting from the new social ”norm.”

As you can imagine, there are many ways to encourage behavior change with respect to energy efficiency, and we hope you will join us for a lively and in-depth discussion of the pros and cons of using CBSM practices in your program design. If you are interested in participating in our webinar on Thursday, October 11, please RSVP to Michelle Vigen at mvigen@aceee.org.

Michelle Vigen contributed to this post.